Die Dolchstosslegende

The modern account of World War One is that Germany lost to the militarily superior UK and US. But in the 1920s and 30s, that was not the dominant view in Germany, at least not in right-wing circles. The nationalist right revered the army so much that it preferred to blame Jews, liberals, and socialists for the loss, for stabbing the army in the back. In German, it became known as the Dolchstosslegende; in English it’s translated as the stab in the back myth.

The closest equivalent of that in the US is the myths circulated in the right that the US could’ve won Vietnam. Sane military historians note that because the US regarded Vietnam as a limited war, it never mobilized its population the way North Vietnam did. Less sane ones conjecture based on that that the US lost only because of pacifist sentiments.

The same thing is now developing in Iraq. It used to be confined to the fringe right and neoconservative intellectuals, but lately it’s been creeping into the mainstream, to the point that Bush is saying, “We’ll succeed unless we quit” (via Amanda).

While it’s normal for politicians to make excuses for incompetence, even in advance, this does more than that. People who merely make excuses are usually perfectly capable of rational judgment when their asses aren’t on the line. That Bush engages in finger-pointing is as remarkable in politics as that Murtha is corrupt and that McCain is a panderer.

What is remarkable is how Bush sets the blame game up. First, “We’ll succeed unless we quit” not only makes excuses for failure in advance, but also takes some amount of responsibility. A purely selfish finger pointing would leave a way out by saying something like, “The quitters are undermining the war effort.” That would be less stark, but more politically convenient.

And second, Bush not only sets up a dolchstosslegende about Iraq, but also compares it with Vietnam. It’s attractive to glorify the military’s past as well as its present, but it’d be a lot more politically convenient for Bush to say that no analogy makes sense because the US military now is completely different from what it was in 1968 (which it is).

This goes beyond ordinary political maneuvering. It betrays a totalitarian fetishization of military force, and a radical belief that the solution to the problems of extremism is more extremism. The army is after all one of the primary means of totalitarianism; third-world dictatorships that are too weak to use it for wars of aggression use it as a substitute for a secret police (see e.g. here for an example from Zimbabwe). While totalitarian states can work with any army, a large, conscripted army that answers only to the executive and is immune to public criticism is the most useful.

The most famous example of trying to solve the problems of extremism with more extremism comes from Mao’s policies, which culminated in an artificial famine that killed about 30 million people. But the Nazi dolchstosslegende was even more spectacular: faced with the defeat of World War One, the Nazis proceeded to create a juggernaut army and start a mammoth war with unprecedented atrocities, and still lost.

Krugman referred to something completely different when he started tagging the Bush administration as radical, but this is another good example of it in action. Imitating Nazi myths is never a good idea; all it does is replace competence with faith, which tends to produce the same results as in World War Two and the Great Leap Forward.

5 Responses to Die Dolchstosslegende

  1. SLC says:

    O course the reason why Hitler was able to get away with his big lie about the stab in the back was that the exhausted entente did not win a total victory and demand unconditional surrender. This mistake was not repeated in WW 2.

  2. six-oh-seven-nine says:

    Partially correct, SLC. Another problem was that — other than starvation, caused by the British blockade — there was no visual evidence of defeat in German eyes: their towns weren’t burnt, their coal fields weren’t ravaged, their farmlands reduced to endless craters growing only unexploded shells and rotting corpses. The average German could look around and say, “everything’s fine here, what the hell happened that we LOST?”, and be easily sustained in that shallow illusion. Many people recognized it at the time. Gen. Andrew McNaughton of the Canadian Corps blew a gasket at the armistice, bellowing “those FOOLS! Now we’ll have to come back in twenty years and do it all again!!” And, twenty-one years later, McNaughton was back in Europe in command of the Canadian Army because, yes, we did have to go back and do it all again because the Germans were so easily convinced that they had, in fact, not lost at all and so were open to the notion of a new war. It is doubtful that this would have been so if their territory had physically suffered as much as France and Belgium: rabble-rousers like Hitler and his ilk would have had a hard time selling a “we really WON! we were BETRAYED!” argument if, say, Munich had looked like Ypres and the Rhineland had looked like the Somme.

  3. SLC says:

    Re six-oh-seven-nine

    However, despite the destruction inflicted on Germany, the Germans did not surrender until the entire country was occipied by the 4 allied powers.

  4. Alon Levy says:

    Actually, after Hitler killed himself, Doenitz and Goebbels offered to surrender. The Allies did not accept the surrender because it wasn’t unconditional.

  5. […] Alon Levy (now with a snazzy new look) sees the beginnings of an American Dolchstosslegende, centered around the loss of the Iraq War. Dolchstosslegende refers to the theory that German liberals knifed Germany in the back at the end of World War I, just as the nation was on the verge of triumph. […]

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